Study Suggests Placebos Don't Have To Be Secret To Work
from the this-is-important dept
Still, I wasn't all that surprised, two years ago, when a report came out blasting Airborne, with the FTC fining the company, saying that there was "no credible evidence" that it worked. I thought about stopping my routine, but after thinking about it, I kept doing it (and was happy to see that Airborne actually became much cheaper after this). And it still worked for me -- even though I was now more convinced than ever that it's merely a placebo. But since then I have been really curious about this idea, as to whether or not someone could take something, even believing that it was a placebo, and have it still work. I even would joke about it with people, that even though I knew it didn't work, I was going to keep taking it until I had proof it didn't work.
Since then, I've become more and more interested in the concept of the placebo effect -- not really even believing my own story (sample size of one, plus confirmation bias, makes me distrust my own evidence...). Last year, we wrote about how the pharma industry was downplaying the placebo effect, even though there was growing evidence that people taking placebos were actually getting better, and it was leading more and more drugs to fail to pass clinical trials, since they didn't outperform placebos. The general reaction to this was to assume the drugs didn't work (which could be true), but very little effort was put into figuring out how come some people taking the placebos did seem to get better. There has been some research done in this area, but a major problem is that pharmaceutical companies have been refusing to share the data from their various clinical trials that would provide much needed data about the placebo effect.
The latest bit of research on this issue (which Mike mentioned in his recent DailyDirt post), is that some researchers have done a study which at least suggests that (as I found with Airborne) even when patients know that they're taking a placebo, it can still have an actual beneficial impact on their health. Now, this is just one study, and it's rather limited, but it's an intriguing area of research that I hope will get a lot more exploration as well. Mike wrote it off to bad control experiments, but I'm wondering if there's something more here.
Again, what would be really helpful is if pharmaceutical companies would release the data they already have from various clinical trials, which would allow for a much deeper analysis of the placebo effect. But, of course, they don't see much benefit in doing that. They want monopolies on drugs -- and evidence of a working placebo effect could harm their business prospects, even if it did lead to a better understanding of how to actually make people healthy. I have no doubt that certain drugs really do make people healthier. But if we could figure out how people are made healthier in the absence of drugs -- even when they know they're getting a placebo, we might get closer to really understanding certain elements of health that could actually serve to make future drugs a lot more effective in keeping people healthy (and, potentially also get past thinking of healthcare as being drugcare, when there's a lot more to keeping people healthy than just pharmaceuticals).
Over four years ago, Andy Kessler came out with his book, called The End of Medicine, which highlights how unfortunate it is that our healthcare system is really dominated by the pharmaceutical industry, where the focus is on "what drugs can be sold," rather than "what can actually make people healthy." In Kessler's book, what suffers are unique technologies that make people healthy, but have trouble getting approval for use (or money for research) because they don't fit into the usual drug classification systems. But it seems that the same sort of thinking applies to the lack of serious effort behind understanding the placebo effect. Hopefully, that's starting to change...